Tag: review

Book Review: The Birth of Plenty

In The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern Work was Created (Amazon,) author Bill Bernstein illustrates how the prosperous west got that way and presents a hypothesis on how growth happens.

Prosperity flows naturally once a society acquires the four crucial factors—property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and modern transportation and communication.

The wretched masses of the third world suffer not because they are deficient in factories and machines but because they lack institutions—property rights, a scientific outlook, and capital markets—while at the same time their countries experience explosive population growth from their glancing encounter with the advances of modern medicine.

It is a fascinating book and you should read it even if your interest in developmental economics is tepid, at best.

Recommendation: Must Read.

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Amazon,) author Steven Johnson lays out a big-picture of how ideas are formed and how to setup an environment that fosters innovation.

Readers in a hurry can stick to the last chapter of the book. That’s pretty much where the meat of the book is.

Take-aways:

  • It is important to just get started solving a problem. And do it publicly if possible. You may not solve the problem you set out initially but along the way, you will find a solution to something else entirely.
  • Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore. Some of the most important innovations in history have taken a long, messy torturous path.
  • Markets allow good ideas to erupt anywhere in the system. The decentralized pricing mechanism of the marketplace allows an entrepreneur to gauge the relative value of his or her innovation. If you come up with an interesting new contraption, you don’t need to persuade a government commission of its value. You just need to get someone to buy it.

Recommendation: Worth flipping through.

Book Review: Business Adventures

Business Adventures (Amazon,) is a collection of stories written by longtime New Yorker contributor John Brooks that capture the zeitgeist of the late 60’s.

It is dated and most of the stories are quite boring. And the few interesting ones, like the Piggly Wiggly short squeeze or the Ford Edsel disaster, have been discussed ad infinitum.

Quotable:

Most nineteenth-century American fortunes were enlarged by, if they were not actually founded on, the practice of insider trading. Not until 1910 did anyone publicly question the morality of corporate officers, directors, and employees trading in the shares of their own companies, not until the nineteen twenties did it come to be widely thought of as outrageous that such persons should be permitted to play the market game with what amounts to a stacked deck, and not until 1934 did Congress pass legislation intended to restore equity.

Recommendation: Avoid.

Book Review: Transaction Man

In Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream (Amazon,) author Nicholas Lemann makes a case for building a plural democracy. Did it have to be a book? Probably not.

The money quote:

Embracing pluralism has to begin with a kind of radical humility. It’s human nature, especially for people who think of themselves as educated, sophisticated, and public-spirited, to believe that what you want the world to look like is a broad, objectively determined meliorist plan that will help everyone.

Pluralism requires accepting a degree of messiness, squabbling, pettiness, and bargaining in the governing of a society: these things are a feature, not a bug. People have a strong and often demonstrated tendency to try to settle their differences through violence. Pluralism means to redirect this tendency into managed, nonviolent conflict. It imagines a system of groups endlessly in vigorous contention. No one group should be able to establish its dominion over the others, either out of selfishness or in the conviction that it represents some inarguably right outcome. There is no such thing as a commonsense solution to a major problem, one that is good for everyone.

Pluralism treats democratic processes, not particular outcomes, as moral absolutes.

The economic system, since the Industrial Revolution, has periodically generated extreme concentrations of power and wealth. Imbalances in economic power always turn into imbalances in political power, unless the political system forcibly corrects them. Concentrations of power always wind up harming people, no matter how benign the holders of power believe themselves to be.

The book meanders between trying to be a history lesson and an NYT human interest piece.

Recommendation: Avoid.

Book Review: Lords of Finance

In Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Amazon,) author Liaquat Ahamed goes deep into the personalities of central bankers in the years between the first and second world wars – their many foibles and their obsession with the gold standard.

Some interesting titbits regarding the gold standard

Experts thought that the First World War would end a couple of weeks because European economies were so tightly intertwined that the cost of a prolonged war would be unbearable.

So smug were the bankers and economists that they even allowed themselves to be convinced that the discipline of “sound money” itself would bring everyone to their senses and force an end to the war. The experts seemed to have forgotten that among the first casualties of war is not only truth but also sound finance.

In four years of constant and obsessive battle, the governments of Europe had spent some $200 billion, consuming almost half of their nations’ GDP in mutual destruction.

After the War, there was a universal consensus among bankers that the world must return to the gold standard as quickly as possible. The biggest obstacle to such a return was the mountain of paper currency issued by the central banks of the belligerent powers during the war.

Take Britain, for example. In 1913, the total amount of money circulating in the country—gold and silver coins; notes issued by the Bank of England and by the large commercial banks; and the largest category, bank deposits—amounted to the equivalent of $5 billion. This supply of money, in all its various forms, was backed in aggregate by the country’s $800 million of gold.

By 1920, the Bank of England had lent so much money to the government to help pay for the war effort that the total money supply had ballooned to the equivalent of $12 billion. Britain’s gold reserves meanwhile remained roughly the same. Thus, whereas in 1913, there had been 15 cents worth of gold within the country for every $1 dollar in money, in 1920 each $1 of money was backed by less than 7 cents.

Maynard Keynes was strongly against the resumption of the gold standard.

His main point was that under current arrangements, given that U.S. gold reserves were so dominant, to tie the pound to gold in effect meant tying it to the dollar and the British economy to that of the United States—and by implication, to Wall Street.

However, the US and Europe decided to tether themselves to the gold standard. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Take-away

History is often presented as a linear sequence of pre-ordained events. However, reality is a lot more random. People responsible for setting the course of history are, at the end of the day, human. They act out in anger, claim the moral high ground and dig themselves into irreversible positions, often putting their egos ahead of doing the right thing.

In hindsight, the triggers for the First World War seem trivial, the punishing restitution imposed on Germany by the Allies seems petulant, the moral arguments in favor of returning to the gold standard seem anachronistic and the inability of the US Fed to decisively act against bank failure in the early 30’s seems like a huge failure. However, for the people making those decisions, it seemed entirely rational, logical, right and inevitable.

Recommendation: Read the epilog first and the rest of the book if you find that interesting.